Elmhurst College In Depth

Hot Burb

The City of Elmhurst ranks Number 1 in a Chicago Magazine survey of local suburbs. Here’s why.

Gauged by the usual rhythms of metropolitan growth and decline, the City of Elmhurst ought to be hurting. It long ago was absorbed into the Chicago region's mature "middle ring." The median age of her population, pushing 39 years, is well above the metro median. Ditto the age of her housing stock, which includes many ranches and split-levels that were on the smallish side when built in the go-go 1950's. According to the recently released Encyclopedia of Chicago, Elmhurst's "gilded age" is well behind her; it began with the Chicago Fire of 1871, which brought wealthy urban "refugees" to the city, and ended early in the 20th century. The largest city in DuPage County in the 1920's, Elmhurst in some respects still reigns as the flush county's dowager queen. Yet she looks uneasily across the Tri-State Tollway at her less fortunate neighbors in western Cook County, aging suburbs struggling with racial change and economic decline.

Why, then, was Elmhurst ranked Number 1 in a Chicago magazine study of the best places to live among 192 local suburbs? Why did Money magazine name Elmhurst one of the "hottest burbs" in the region? Why, for that matter, did Elmhurst add population during the 1990's, while neighboring suburbs like Oak Brook and Villa Park lost ground? Why are her property values surging, her tax rates easing, and the already high test scores of her schoolchildren rising?

The Chicago magazine study may provide a few answers. Back in March 2003, the magazine's surveyors judged Elmhurst and its 191 municipal "competitors" by such standards as crime rate, commute times, average house sales price, park acres per 1,000 residents, and pupils per teacher in the public schools. Their verdict: "Elmhurst may be the quintessential Chicago suburb." It's "pretty," "safe," "alive with cultural offerings, and close to the expressways and O'Hare." In short, "this city of 42,762 is an across-the-board high performer, scoring at or near the top of its group in all the categories of our survey."

Clearly, Elmhurst is an urban success story. It thrives despite the fact that its median family income in the 2000 census ($81,496) did not rank among the top ten in DuPage County (never mind the North Shore). It thrives despite the fact that it never won a regional shopping mall, and its traditional downtown must compete with one of the region's classiest malls, Oakbrook Center, just o the town's southern flank. It thrives on a metropolitan chessboard dominated by high rollers like Naperville and Schaumburg, and alongside future boomtowns—the distant Plainfields and Huntleys—that are plotting their own moves to the center of the board. A mature place by local standards—it was settled in 1843 and incorporated in 1882—Elmhurst even flourishes in the face of our regional (no, national) penchant for discarding the old and celebrating the new.

The bottom-line appeal of the city is straightforward. "It's just a very desirable place to live," said Ken Bartels, vice president for college advancement at Elmhurst College and a longtime resident.

As with most urban success stories, Elmhurst's can be ascribed to a combination of favorable trends, effective leadership, and dumb luck. Most significantly, the city managed to turn what might have been a lethal liability—the dowager queen's crusty old age—into its biggest asset.

Since 1993, the master of this suburban jujitsu has been Mayor Thomas D. Marcucci. A 1970 graduate of York Community High School and an Elmhurst resident for forty-nine of his fifty-three years, Marcucci is tough-minded, quick-witted, and wise in the ways of DuPage County politics and governance.

Marcucci's office in City Hall is full of mementos. But the mayor makes sure a visitor notices only two: a drawing of the newly rebuilt York High School, the fruit of a hard-fought $88-million referendum; and a grip-and-grin photo of the mayor with Lech Walesa, taken in 2000 when the Nobel Prize laureate and former Polish president visited Elmhurst College. "One of the beauties of having a top college in your town," he says, "is that a guy like me gets to meet someone like this."

The mayor is quick to tick off some additional benefits of Elmhurst's "town-gown relationship." The citizenry enjoys access to campus cultural offerings, including concerts, plays, speakers like Walesa, and a celebrated annual Jazz Festival. The campus provides thirty-eight acres of carefully maintained green space, a registered arboretum with 700 species of trees and shrubs. The priciest houses in town ($1 million and more) are largely located in the College View neighborhood around campus. Finally, of course, there's jobs. The College employs scores of Elmhurst residents and provides local businesses with alumni and students eager to work in town. (About 1,200 alumni live in Elmhurst.)

Asked about town-gown's down side, Marcucci provides a much shorter list. "Some parking problems, nothing big," he allows. The city and College have experienced nothing comparable to, say, Evanston's troubles with Northwestern University over tax exemptions, football traffic, and what not. Overall, Marcucci resists comparing Elmhurst to its neighbors. "We're not trying to be the North Shore," he said. "We're not even trying to be Hinsdale. We're just trying to be the best Elmhurst we can be."

At the same time, one suspects that the mayor has done a fair amount of rubbernecking to see what development strategies are working in other towns. One strategy that clearly has been working—in older suburbs like Evanston and Oak Park, and in clever middle-agers like St. Charles and Arlington Heights—is the revival of traditional downtowns, and especially of pedestrian-friendly retail districts centered on commuter rail stations.

Traditional commercial districts are making a comeback. The same forces are at work in select older suburbs and in many of Chicago's older neighborhoods. These forces include demographic shifts favoring retired empty-nesters and unmarried couples; a "new urbanism" lifestyle that values porch-sitting and sidewalk shopping over stripmall parking and turning on the left arrow; and basic economics, beginning with the price of gasoline or of a parking spot in the Loop. For a small but growing number of Elmhurst residents, the good life is no longer defined by a raised ranch in a car-bound subdivision but rather by a condominium near the Metra station—a home within walking distance of the lovingly restored York Theater, of Fresco's Mediterranean Café, of the art studios in the old Liberty Building, and (new this year) of the Lucky Strike, a "gourmet" bowling alley and billiards parlor.

This is not your father's Elmhurst. One could argue it is closer to your grandfather's. There was a day, before the malls and interstates, when Elmhurst was the shopping Mecca for all of eastern DuPage County. You could buy a complete outfit at Hesse's Men's Store, and just about anything you might need at one of three downtown department stores, Ollsang's, Sears Roebuck, and Ruby's (Ruby's motto: "Styled Right—Made Right—Priced Right"). Fast food was an ice cream soda at Elmhurst Drugs. Networking was conducted at Metz's cigar shop, where you could pick up a quality Havana and the Chicago Daily News, gab with the guys, and (if you were a regular) lay off a horse bet in the back room.

In time, the entire scene was swept away by a fatal combination of regional malls, big-box discounters, and automania. By the early 1970's, vacant storefronts and half-empty parking lots dotted York Street. Sales taxes bled away, putting pressure on residential property taxes. The residential population itself declined; during the 70's, Elmhurst lost more than 6,000 souls. Those cozy, split-level nests were emptying out as the young chose to feather their own in subdivisions farther west, where you could get "more for your money." In the 1980's, the city's population fell another 2,000.

It was an undignified time for the dowager queen, but she fought back gallantly, using all of the fiscal tools available to her. To replace lost sales taxes, Elmhurst lined her peripheral highways—notably Lake Street and Grand Avenue—with one of the Chicago area's largest agglomerations of car dealerships. Nearby, a modern industrial park rose to capitalize on the proximity of the north of town to O'Hare. Discounters filled a new strip mall at St. Charles Road and Route 83.

Ultimately, however, what brought Elmhurst through those difficult days were the things she did not do. Elmhurst did not turn its downtown into an auto-centric urban renewal fiasco, a la Des Plaines. It did not impose a deadening mall on its main drag, a la Oak Park (although York Street was made one-way northbound, for better or worse). More crucially, the suburb did not engage in any wholesale destruction of landmark commercial structures to make way for sterile doctor's offices and supermarket parking lots. A few of downtown's terra cotta eminences came down, but enough survived to anchor the preservation-powered redevelopment that was destined to follow.

It did not hurt that Elmhurst was blessed with venerable institutions that held their ground through the not-so-good times. For example, the leaders of Elmhurst Memorial Hospital, a local landmark since 1926, maintained its facility in the leafy neighborhood east of downtown rather than take the operation and its 2,000 employees to some expressway interchange out west. The hospital recently announced plans to decamp to south Elmhurst. The plan amounts to a vote of confidence in the town and, potentially, presents an intriguing redevelopment opportunity at Schiller and Berteau.

Over on the west side, Elmhurst College also has kept the faith and has thrived along with the town. The College's string of recent successes—increased enrollment, physical expansion, and a string of national accolades, including favorable rankings by U.S. News & World Report and the Princeton Review—have mirrored contemporaneous advances by the city. "The city's success gives us a stronger recruiting base, a more powerful story of success," says the College's Ken Bartels.

It also did not hurt that, throughout its critical period of economic repositioning, Elmhurst was the epicenter of Republican power in the Land of Lincoln. A few years ago, an imposing trio of G.O.P. heavyweights—the president of the Illinois Senate, the speaker of the Illinois House, and the chairman of the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives—all maintained homes or offices in or around town. Party clout since has shifted to western DuPage and Kane counties, but not before crucial state and federal funding were secured for necessary infrastructure improvements, such as a railroad underpass at Palmer Drive and a rebuilt North Avenue.

Historians will argue when, exactly, downtown Elmhurst turned the corner toward its prosperous new life. At what point, they will ask, was it clear that Elmhurst would escape the inexorable decline that has swallowed so many city centers in the middle ring? It's impossible to say, but a strong case can be made for a precise date: September 13, 1991. On that Friday, the York Theater, with its 1924 décor—Spanish revival going on Art Deco—reopened under new management and under a blazingly restored neon marquee.

"The city worked with us at every step," said Willis Johnson, whose family-owned company saved the York from bankruptcy and extinction. Johnson's company, Tivoli Enterprises/Classic Cinemas, had worked similar magic with downtown theaters in Oak Park (the Lake), Downers Grove (the Tivoli), and Kankakee (the Paramount). The formula: restore the landmark theaters's gilded glory, but partition the seating areas to compete with suburban multi-screens. Also, if possible, redevelop the adjacent properties, both to add screens and to capture the before-and-after-the-show traffic of diners and drinkers. The York Theater now has seven screens, and Tivoli Enterprises has recruited thriving nearby tenants, including the KaleidoScoops ice cream parlor and (of course) a Starbucks.

Willis Johnson helped organize Elmhurst City Centre, an alliance of more than two hundred downtown businesses and landlords. He now serves as the group's president. Elmhurst City Centre runs hip marketing campaigns and sponsors special events, like Cool Cars under the Stars, a Wednesday-nights-in-summer tradition featuring classic automobiles. The group even taxes itself to help fund an assortment of streetscape improvements. The centerpiece is a public plaza with a fountain across the street from the York.

Of course, not every Elmhurst resident is thrilled by all the changes. Organized opposition is growing to some aspects of local development, and especially to the mid-rise condominiums and townhouses that are sprouting along streets where the resurgent downtown butts against traditional neighborhoods with single-family homes.

The conflicts are rooted in the relatively recent history of DuPage County. DuPage, after all, was where "the Greatest Generation" came to escape all things Chicago—the cramped urban apartments, the tax-and-spend political bosses, the sweaty indignity of public transportation. The escapees, overwhelmingly white and middle class, came in a flood. In 1930, Elmhurst's population was 14,055; by 1960, it had more than doubled, to 36,991. Many of the new arrivals were "fleeing all the things suburbanites fled in the 1950's: landlords and cooking smells, neighbors one flight above or uncomfortably close next door," Alan Ehrenhalt wrote in The Lost City, his 1995 book about Chicago and Elmhurst. "They were giving up the grayness of Chicago for the pastels of DuPage County." There, among the pastels, every man and his adoring family could have a quarter-acre lot, a bedroom for each of his 2.5 children, and all the personal freedom that an automobile could provide.

In the ensuing half-century, a lot has changed in DuPage. Nearly a quarter of the county's residents told the 2000 census that their ethnicity was something other than "white/non-Hispanic." At the same time, Elmhurst remains overwhelmingly white (93.4 percent). Residents of Hispanic or Latino origin make up 4.0 percent of the population; African Americans, just 0.9 percent. (The percentage was actually higher in the 1870 census, when 1.8 percent of Elmhurst's population of 329 was listed as "Colored.")

Moreover, local attitudes about what Elmhurst should be have remained strong. "Large buildings take away from the hometown atmosphere of Elmhurst!" a resident declared at a Zoning and Planning Commission meeting last spring (according to one of the town's three newspapers). At the meeting, a homeowners delegation managed to defeat a developer's proposal for a multistory Sunrise Assisted Living facility downtown. Groups of like-minded citizens are bird-dogging zoning applications, targeting projects deemed too tall or too dense.

Terry Pastika, the executive director of the Citizen Advocacy Center, complains that Elmhurst abuses the state's Tax Increment Financing law when it subsidizes upscale condominium projects like Crescent Court, a curved row of brick townhouses ($250,000 and up) rising east of York Street and south of the Metra tracks. TIF, she argues, was intended to finance development in "blighted" areas that would not happen but for state aid. "That area isn't blighted," she noted. "Any developer would be glad to build there."

In a sense, Pastika's underlying point—that blight is not a threat to Elmhurst—underscores all that has been achieved in recent decades. "We're now recognized as one of the most successful downtown redevelopment programs in the Chicago area," Marcucci noted. The mayor gives substantial credit to his immediate predecessors, including Abner Ganet (an Elmhurst College trustee), Charles Garrigues, and Robert Quinn. In Marcucci's view, none of the city's recent leaders needs to apologize for plowing property taxes from new development into the infrastructure and land-acquisition funds required to keep the downtown ball rolling. "Now we have more than eight hundred units of new housing in or near downtown," the mayor said. "That's over a thousand customers for our restaurants and shops.

"But every time we do a deal—Market Place, Museum Place, Crescent Circle—the 'anti's' say we're not looking out for the school district. Well, it turns out very few children are coming from those places. It's mostly seniors. What I do know is that our overall tax rate is coming down, because our tax base is growing." (This year, the tax rate is $5.26 per $100 of assessed valuation.)

Another sore spot is the "teardown" phenomenon. Last year, more than 220 modest homes were purchased and demolished to make way for bigger homes. Critics say that many of the new residences are out of scale and character with the Cape Cods and split-levels that surround them.

Mention the tear-down phenomenon to the mayor, how-ever, and you'll bring a gleam to his eyes. For years, he said, Elmhurst suffered from a shortage of large homes. Local breadwinners who won big promotions at work would move to Hinsdale or Oak Brook for lack of a high-end alter-native in Elmhurst. Now they are more likely to stay.

"We have older couples selling their houses for $350,000 as tear downs, buying a $250,000 condo in town, and banking the difference. This is a problem?" asked the mayor. "We do regulate the heights, setbacks, footprints" of the new houses. Still, Marcucci, a conservative Republican, is not a big fan of municipal design controls. "This is a free market, right? You ought to be able to build any kind of house you want."

Asked about the availability of affordable housing in Elmhurst, the mayor grinned. "We've got it," he said. He cited a recent survey by state housing officials that identified dozens of affluent Chicago suburbs that need to offer more housing for limited-income buyers and renters. Elmhurst did not make the list. It still has a goodly stock of "starter homes" priced around $200,000.

As it continues to remake itself into—what? DuPage County's first mostly new old-fashioned neighborhood?—Elmhurst can build on abundant historical assets that are matched by only a handful of Chicago suburbs. Fully a century before those 1950's split-levels went up for the returning GIs, self-made English and German pioneers with names like Gerry Bates, Frederick Graue, and Thomas Barbour Bryan were opening inns and putting up gracious country retreats in the settlement that was originally called Cottage Hill. The Galena & Chicago Union Railroad arrived in 1849, and with it more hard-working German immigrants. They built the preparatory seminary that became Elmhurst College, along with a community where culture and learning would be celebrated.

Elmhurst has never been just another tract-built suburb. The city has always had a serenity to it, a blending of culture and nature, of good books pondered under sheltering hardwoods. Little wonder that Carl Sandburg loved to live and write his poetry and biographies in the city, or that Frank Lloyd Wright and Walter Burley Griffin found inspiration for their designs there. Something, too, must have inspired the Brothers Niebuhr, Reinhold and Richard, to go forth from Elmhurst to redefine what it meant to be a Christian in their own crass and clamorous times.

What can be said about Elmhurst's future? Will she try to stand pat and, in the non-effort, slip back into something resembling her 1970's funk? Or will she continue to seek creative ways to wed her traditional assets to new markets, new opportunities, and new realities?

Two projects now on the boards suggest that, so far at least, she is taking the bolder course. Plans are in the works to repackage the many impressive but disjointed amenities in and around Wilder Park, east of campus, into a cultural center of regional significance. The idea is to connect—with sinew ranging from intimate footpaths to coordinated programming—the great public spaces of Elmhurst College with municipal gems such as the art museum, the conservatory, and the new library. Another city-shaping amenity could be the Elmhurst leg of the Greenway Trail, an inter-suburban nature path that would follow Salt Creek, the river that flows along the western edge of town.

No doubt these concepts will create problems and confront pitfalls. Where would the visitors to the new Wilder Park put their cars? Would the Greenway hikers and bikers be welcomed on side streets like Berkley Avenue as they make a necessary detour from Salt Creek? The potential for opposition is great.

One suspects, however, that Elmhurst will find a way to get it all done. After all, the dowager queen who became one hot burb has a knack for finding ways to beat the urban odds and, gracefully, to reinvent herself.

By John McCarron
Photography by Tom Lindfors

Photo by Tom Lindfors

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